Roisin Lynch comes from one of the most deprived communities in Western Europe, a community that has seen its fair share of injustice and violence, West Belfast. Her partner, Brendan Lillis, was jailed in the 1970s for his alleged activities as a member of Belfast Brigade of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. He served 16 years and took part in the blanket protest in Long Kesh for four of those years. Released on license (parole) in 1992, he was picked up again on another, entirely unrelated, charge in 2009. Brendan Lillis suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a bone disease, and was declared medically unfit to stand trial but held anyway by, what remains, a system of British injustice in Ireland where his health badly deteriorated. Spending over 600 days bed ridden, it was clear that Brendan was a threat to no one, but was rather himself a victim of a cruel and vindictive regime who wield the power of internment by a different name.
That power hangs like a Sword of Damocles of the head of hundreds of ex-prisoners and their families. Make a stupid mistake, reject the Good Friday Agreement, become politically active outside of the acceptable parameters or step out of line and you can be picked up and held on past charges to finish what was an unjust sentence to begin with for the ‘crime’ of fighting in a war now supposedly over (see Sandy Boyer’s recent article in Socialist Worker ‘Interned in Northern Ireland’). Brendan’s situation is one faced by increasing numbers and potentially by many more. The conditions they find themselves held in resemble some of the worst in the history of the Troubles, now said to be over
But the British and their Unionist allies along with Sinn Fein, now helping to administer the Northern Ireland state who were forced to speak up for Brendan, didn’t count on a fierce, determined working class woman from Belfast. Roisin raised hell and Brendan’s plight caught the imagination of so many others left behind, because of their politics or their class or both, by the New Dispensation. At first her’s was a lonely voice, but soon many others were drawn into the cause; spurned on by the obvious injustice of Brendan’s case, the conditions of other prisoners held for their political activities, the memory of so many past campaigns, by the failure of ‘peace’ to dramatically change the social conditions of so many rank and file that fought the war and, most importantly, by the obvious and tenacious genuineness of Roisin herself.
She went on hunger strike in support of her partner, held camp and organized white line pickets, letter writing campaigns and speak-outs. Soon others, including former prisoners like Gerard Hodgins (pictured with Roisin above and speaking below), joined in, inspired by Brendan’s plight and Roisin’s fight which both profoundly touched their own experiences.
The pressure this campaign was able to exert forced the regime to release Brendan, though still on license, last week. After years living with the agony of watching her partner deteriorate behind bars, Roisin will be able to embrace and tend to her partner, clearly so loved by her, away from the sadism of Her Majesty’s Pleasure. What began as the lonely, anguished cry over a wrong by a resolute and, in her way, fierce, working class woman became a movement that forced Power to move. Roisin herself in an interview on this Saturday’s Radio Free Eireann said that she hoped that what began as a movement to free one man would continue as a movement to support all the prisoners in their fight for humane treatment and for justice.
The fact that so many continue to be imprisoned in the north of Ireland though the conflict is said to be ended speaks volumes as to the inadequacies, no the inherent injustices, of the current settlement. The fact that Roisin Lynch and her comrades are actively challenging those injustices, injustices which can and must be laid at Britain’s door (who decides whose license is revoked? in whose prison are they held?) also highlights the unfinished struggle for human rights, to say nothing of national liberation and socialism, in Ireland.
While only one, and in its way small, victory, Brendan’s release shows the possibility of struggle and for that we all owe Roisin a debt of gratitude. It wasn’t the Great and the Good that got Brendan released it, they hold the Brednan Lillis’ of the world in utter disdain. No, it was a working class woman and the movement she inspired of other working class people who did that. She straightened her back in the face of daily indignities and in doing so showed others how to straighten theirs. If ever I was in a similar situation as Brendan there is no other person, not one, I would want in my corner more than Roisin Lynch. He was lucky to have such a partner and we are lucky to have such an example of a working class hero.